Men, women and ministry

Men, women and ministry

I was reading this post advocating egalitarianism earlier today and thinking over the implications of it. For myself I was raised loosely egalitarian and in an existential sense do not see any cause for women to not operate in many of the same categories men do. I am happy to work under and submit to female line managers and to listen to, work with and cooperate with female colleagues. It is not an issue to me. Yes their are differences between the sexes, at times significant ones. Yet despite this I felt the author’s associations between complementarianism and acts of domestic abuse as not in any way helpful to the discussion. Many complementarians I know are women who haven’t been treated in the way the author describes. One might even suggest it is possible to reform the behaviour of the men in question without dispensing with the core theology.

However, I do feel that this issue of the sexes in ministry is a much greater flashpoint issue in the Protestant world than in other traditions of Christianity. Is this possibly down to..

  • How the vocation of ministry is perceived?
  • A view of the sacraments and their handling?
  • The lack of female role-models in the church?
  • Sexism

What follows is in no way systematic but merely my own thoughts on the subject.

What is the role of the priest/minister

This differs from church to church but the responsibilities of priest/minister I believe can be boiled down to the follow categories..

  • Preaching and teaching from scripture
  • Serving those in need
  • Working towards the growth of the church
  • To safeguard the teachings of the church
  • Leading gatherings
  • Administering Sacraments
  • General administration

These points most people of all church backgrounds could agree with. We might differ on the definition of some of these terms but I think we can agree in a general sense with this list. The other immediate thing that stands out to me is that there are several areas of this which aren’t limited to ministers. Everyone can do the following in some capacity..

  • General administration
  • Serving those in need
  • Working towards the growth of the church
  • To safeguard the teachings of the church
  • Leading gatherings
  • Administering Sacraments
  • Preaching and teaching from scripture

I think we can agree that it is everyone’s responsibilities to safeguard the teachings of the church, to engage in mission and to be involved in acts of service. Administration is in a somewhat different category in that not everyone is gifted in this area and is something of a specialised skill (I do not think I would be a good administrator for example) but no criteria exists  in scripture for administration other than that one be gifted in it.

The ones I left out of the abovementioned list are the leading of gatherings, the administering of sacraments and the preaching and teaching from scripture. However even in this capacity I believe this list can be cut down further. Namely in suggesting that preaching and teaching from scripture is reliant namely on faithful exposition rather than the identity of the expositor. More so that teaching can occur in nearly any context and so really the question really focuses on how preaching differs in any sense from conventional teaching. In this I would venture that their is space for women to speak to the body. Particularly in the Orthodox and Catholic churches I do not think their is quite the same concerns about women speaking or teaching men as their is in Protestantism.

hilda-of-whitby
St Hilda, Christian saint and the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby (not a priest)

In Protestantism its more common to see an attitude of ‘women to women’ and ‘men to men (and women)’ when it comes to teaching whereas even in the history of the British Church we see the precedent of women like St Hilda of Whitby who was an abbess over both male and female monastics and was consulted by kings for her wisdom in all matters. Other notable examples might be St Nina/Nino of Georgia who preached, healed and was responsible for the baptism of the nobility of the country (although I don’t think she actually carried it out baptisms herself and that was left to a priest). I think the understanding of Protestant objections is generally rooted in literalist readings of passages like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 but I think it is worth noting that the ‘Catholic’ historical attitude is that women can preach, teach and even lead men to some degree if gifted as such when not concerning the sacrements. So to my limited understanding I think the real distinctives is that of the priesthood. A women can be a minister and for many Protestants that is all that is worthy of consideration. However in a sacramental context, whilst all Christians hold to sacraments (although they differ in number and prominence across churches) the question of women in the priesthood largely depends on the definition of the priest. This too is why I left out the area of leadership because leadership of a church gathering (depending on the church) can be largely liturgical or sacramental in nature. Despite the fact that we have no shortage of iconic and successful female Christian monarchs in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism.

0519nino-georgia0020
St Nino, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia (not a priest)

Sunday gatherings and the sacraments

So ultimately I feel having looked at the options there are two distinctives to formal ministry / priesthood.

  • General administration
  • Serving those in need
  • Working towards the growth of the church
  • To safeguard the teachings of the church
  • Leading gatherings
  • Administering Sacraments
  • Preaching and teaching from scripture

When I refer to the sacraments in this context I will for the sake of convenience be referring to what I consider the universal sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Looking around for a summary on the matter from a more sacramental outlook I came across something written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

This priesthood is Christ’s, not ours. None of us, man or woman, has any “right” to it; it is emphatically not one of human vocations, analogous, even if superior, to all others. The priest in the Church is not “another” priest, and the sacrifice he offers is not “another” sacrifice. It is forever and only Christ’s priesthood and Christ’s sacrifice — for, in the words of our Prayers of Offertory, it is “Thou who offerest and Thou who art offered, it is Thou who receivest and Thou who distributest….” And thus the “institutional” priest in the Church has no “ontology” of his own. It exists only to make Christ himself present, to make this unique Priesthood and this unique Sacrifice the source of the Church’s life and the “acquisition” by men of the Holy Spirit. And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman…

I think it would be worth noting also that it is only a small proportion of the male population of the church that will eventually find themselves in the priesthood with this theology. Also the only reason leadership of a service may, in some cases, be exclusively a male thing is the prominence of sacraments in a service within that church. Gatherings in which the sacraments aren’t as prominent shouldn’t disqualify women from ministering in a facilitatory capacity regarding the service or even preaching.

However I think the question of why this has become so prominent is perhaps indicative of a broader shift in how people, I think in all denominations  are beginning to increasingly see the faith.

Priesthood and pietism

pietist-conventicle
Pietism placed an emphasis on a personal (and perhaps less a public/corporate?) relationship with Christ

Pietism as a term may be unfamiliar to many Christians today but its goal of placing the individual’s commitment to the Christian life as preeminent is recognisable in modern Evangelical preaching and teaching. The relationship between modern Evangelicalism and the 17th century Lutheran Pietism movement is massively understated. I think no one can really object to its aims as I’ve briefly mentioned them but I think one of its changes is shifting the individual’s concept of faith from being a member of the body to that of an individual before God. What matters for the Pietist is your personal relationship to God and less that of theology, doctrine or the general shared sense of responsibility for one another. John Wesley was a notable Anglican influenced by Pietism.
The influence of Pietism today can be found both in the secular world and even other Christian churches. Its emphasis on the conviction, emotion and passion of the individual corresponds with our modern desire driven materialism and the consumptive ambience we find ourselves living in. We go to both shops and churches to get something whether it is the latest smartphone or spiritual message/revelation of the season. They are both arguably subject to seasonal fashions. This way of thinking and living is as natural as breathing to so many of us in the West now.

Where this Pietistic way of thinking comes into things like women in the priesthood is the idea of seeing priests as ‘professionals’ and in our desire to better serve the church feel becoming a priest is the natural way to go. Now this isn’t me asserting I believe it’s the only reason, I do think complementarian theology does have a lot to answer for and egalitarians are right to want people to be treated on their merits as people. However we have forsaken the corporate ministry (or priesthood rather) of the body in our individualistic age literally leaving it in the hands of a few ‘professionals’. Often at the expense of sound theology and depending on a church’s view of sacraments with drastic theological implications.

To summarise the above, your church’s view of the sacraments should be the thing that decides the ways in which the church attributes the roles of various people in church. In the case of most Protestants with a ‘low’ view of sacraments I don’t see an argument against Women leaders in the church. However I do not feel you can hold to a view of the sacraments as a means to dispense grace and simultaneously accept women into the liturgical/sacramental role of priest. That is if you hold to the classically understood view of the priest representing Christ in relation to the Church. You can have women preaching, teaching and ministering but if the priest is an icon of Christ in the liturgy then to have a female priest you devolve your understanding of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church the bride to something  merely metaphorical or a memorial. If you do then consistency suggests your view of sacraments is likely to be metaphorical too. If it is metaphorical and you hold to the liturgical office of priests then you’re holding to the appropriation of a largely abstract metaphor and arguably empty office for anyone is able to distribute communion with this theology. Again if it isn’t metaphorical and you hold to the liturgical office of priests then you’re potentially endangering the efficacy of the sacraments with a female priest.

christa
Emmanuel?

If you are part of a (Protestant) church that doesn’t hold to the office of liturgical priests in relation to the sacraments then their is no reason to withhold individuals from ministry at the expense of gifting that God has bestowed on them. Principally however, the Church in question would have to settle on its understanding of the sacraments before it could move forward in one direction or another without compromise. Something I think the Church of England, like many things, is in a real mess over and either has gone too far or not far enough depending on your theology. I believe it also has implications for your understanding of marriage (a Sacrament in Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Classical Anglicanism), the issue of Transgenderism and how you address God (He / She / Whatever). If you get metaphorical in some senses you can get metaphorical in others. Yet if you theologically ascribe to communion as a memorial then this isn’t a conclusion that immediately follows I think its the sacramental outlook this hinges on.

I’m not sure what side I come down on (I think I see three options but only two are possible options for me given my understanding of scripture), but this is how I understand it currently and it feels complicated as it touches on more than what we might initially think. What I believe will probably come down to how I eventually understand the sacraments. What I do see however is that Protestants seem to be generally in the habit of making a much bigger deal of the differences of the sexes than our Catholic and Orthodox siblings do despite their sacramental outlook and consistency on the continuation of a male priesthood.